Tastes of the Central Pacific
In the 1980s my sister’s husband was hired to work in the Federated States of Micronesia, a new nation of four small islands in the central Pacific Ocean. They lived there for several years, first on the island of Ponape (now called Pohnpei), then they moved to a smaller island called Kosrae. I never visited, but my sister’s letters told about rustic life surrounded by the sea, the high humidity, the culture, the food, and the customs that included chewing betel nut (which reddens the teeth), drinking sakau (a narcotic mud) and eating dog. Americans sometimes stopped by the island in private yachts, and these included celebrities and journalists that Debbie and Rob met and occasionally entertained.
My sister’s letters were thrilling to me, but the subject I became most interested in was what she had to say about pepper that was grown on the island. There were pepper fields on Ponape, and the pepper had a distinct flavor and heat unlike any they had ever had before. From Ponape, Debbie sent me a package with both black and white peppercorns. It was true that I had never tasted pepper like it, and I felt connected to the exotic world my sister was immersed in. My husband and I used the pepper, the black and the white, in two separate pepper mills, and I incorporated it into my cooking. I begged my sister to send more, and generously sized packages arrived regularly with Micronesian stamps on them.
I was testing recipes for the New York Times and had started to write articles for them as well. There were only a few pepper farmers on the island. I found the number of one and called to say I wanted to write about the pepper and their farm. My credentials didn’t impress him. He had been visited by a much more well-known Times writer who had stopped by the island and promised to be in touch regarding an article. He would wait for that.
To my knowledge, that article never appeared. After Debbie and Rob returned to mainland USA, I did order a large supply of Pohnpei peppercorns that I kept in the freezer, hoping to preserve their pungency. I didn’t forget the impact that the unfamiliar flavor of the pepper had, so I began to try peppercorns from around the world. And my sister took it further – she and Rob collect pepper mills and always have an array of pepper varieties on their table and sideboard. Pohnpei pepper can still be found – in tiny quantities and at a steep price because it is grown only on a small island in the Central Pacific.